Has the Rise of the Machines Been Good for Shotguns?

The hard truth is, robots are better at making guns than we are

beretta sl3 shotgun
Most of the work on a Beretta SL3 is done by machine.Beretta

It used to be when you read a gun review, the writer would devote a line or two on the gun's checkering. Typically, it would read something like: The 22 lines-per-inch checkering was neat and clean, with only a few overruns… When is the last time you saw that? It's probably been a while. It goes without saying that checkering will be perfect because it's most likely been cut by a machine that never makes a mistake, not a fallible human hand.

And checkering isn’t the half of it. More and more, shotguns are made in part or entirely by machines, even expensive guns you wouldn’t expect to be made by machines.

The worst, or the best part, depending on how you feel about these things, is that machines are better at making guns than we are. Earlier this spring, I visited Caesar Guerini, where I saw CNC machines milling 96 receivers at once, and to such tight tolerances that all of them measured within .0001 inch of one another. In contrast, back in the ’90s, when Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing started making A.H. Fox guns, one of their first tasks was to disassemble a bunch of original, handmade Foxes, measure parts and take averages, since none were exactly the same size.

The other benefit is that machine labor costs a lot less than skilled human labor. A little over a year ago, I visited Beretta to see the new SL3 o/u being made. It’s an entry-level high-end gun, which means it “only” costs about $20,000, as opposed to $85,000 or so of an SO10. A lot of the savings are the result of letting machines do the work of people, although there is still a fair amount of hand fitting and finishing that goes into each SL3.

Caesar Guerinis, by contrast, are made almost entirely by machines. A few of the very highest-grade models feature hand-chased laser engraving, and all the guns have their recoil lugs hand-fitted. Otherwise, they are machine-made. The stocks and receivers are all so uniform there’s no need for people to do any hand-fitting to join them together. Likewise, the barrels fit the actions without the need to use black smoke and files to fit them the old-fashioned way. It is lacking in romance, perhaps, but it puts a much higher-quality gun into a price range many people can afford.

If you want handmade guns, there are plenty of them on the used market, including quite a few that won’t break the bank. To me it seems reasonable to own some old, handmade guns and some new, machine-made ones, and appreciate them all for what they are.